Nighthawks – Chapter Five: The Reinvention of Bernice

     Her parents had named her after the Fitzgerald story – she hated the name.  She went by B – queen of the B-girls.  She could chizz a drink out of a priest if she were so inclined.  Of course, that wasn’t saying much in a city where priests were almost as corrupt as the coppers.  Like her namesake from the story, B wore her blonde locks in a bob.  It was no longer the most fashionable of styles, but the cut flattered her jawline, while her pearl-stringed necklace accentuated her slender neck.  Her thin frame perfectly filled her butterick dress and was well suited to the times.

The girl sat alone at the bar, a very rare occurrence – very rare.  She was working, but she brought enough dough into the place night in and night out that no one was going to complain…especially since she’d still rake in over quota for the night.

The band seemed stale tonight.  The singer appeared to be going through the motions, while distracted by something or other.  He continuously eyed the door nervously or anxiously as if he were expecting someone.  B sympathized with the singer; he had recently lost his wife, so she could understand his fragile moods.  She had lost her fiancé the year before and it nearly destroyed her.  That was when Bernice died and B came into existence; cutting her hair and ditching her old life, along with her wardrobe.  She high-tailed it out of Backwardsville, Mississippi and hit the city looking for adventure – a chance to live again.  Anything to remind her she was the one still alive.

She decided she needed a belly-punch and a new drink, so she began sizing up the marks in the joint.  She quickly settled on a thick-set man who had been drinking alone, for some time.  He routinely scratched his chin through his dark brown beard, speckled with gray.  He appeared to be a sailor, if she surmised correctly – one of her favorite targets.  She preferred men that were only in town for a day or two, if that long.  Sailors and salesmen were the best.  Most of them were unaware of the scam and would be long gone before they added it up.  She was a B-girl – queen of the B-girls – paid to flirt with lonely men at the bar.  It served two purposes: a man with a pretty girl would stay longer and any man worth his salt would buy the lady’s drinks.  Suddenly, each round went from one lonely drink to a his and hers couple.

She made her move just as she noticed a change in the singer’s voice, which became more relaxed.  She looked to the stage to see the singer look past her toward the club entrance.  Curiosity caused her to spin to see what had capture the singer’s attention.

A handsome man in an expensive black tailored suit and matching hat had entered the club.  The stranger smiled toward the band and made his way to the bar.  He ordered a scotch – neat, and retreated to the back of the joint.  Bernice abandoned thoughts of the sailor as her eyes followed this new arrival.  Most of the patrons were grouped together toward the front to watch the band play and dance to the tunes.  The back of the bar was where one could have some space and breathe a little.  The stranger disappeared into the throng of people; B followed suit.

She found him seated in the back, apparently contented to listen to the music, with no need to watch the band.  He had found an empty table, or maybe he had emptied it in the brief moments before she had found him.  She sidled up to the man with a feeling in the pit of her stomach that had been absent for so long.  So long that she almost failed to recognize it.  She stood next to the table and waited for the inevitable invitation to join him.  An invitation that oddly, failed to arrive, causing some consternation on her part.  He stared into his drink as he stirred it, slowly, with his toothpick, oblivious to all around.

“May I join you?”  She asked as she slid into the empty seat next to the stranger, making it hard for him to refuse her.  It was a trick of the trade she’d learned early on.

He shook his head slightly, failing to look up from his drink and responded, “Too late to stop you now…go ahead.”

“Thanks, mister,” was all she said and then waited for his move.

After a few brief moments, Jake looked up to examine the intruding woman.  He was stunned by her beauty.  Her soft eyes turned to meet his gaze, and she smiled demurely as she reached out a hand.

He accepted her small hand in his and shook it ever so slightly, “Jake.” was all he said.

She returned with her own single word reply, “B.”

She then pulled her hand back from his in seemingly slow-motion and waited.  Jake knew the game well, held her gaze, and also waited.  He knew the score – it was a game in which he could only hope to pull a draw.  From the corner of his eye, he saw Isaac Midnight making his way through the crowd toward the table.

“The macher I’m to meet is pulling up just now,” Jake said to B, never averting his gaze from hers.

B’s eyes, likewise, never left Jake’s, “Why futz with him, when you can pash with me, instead?”

Jake’s smile grew, “I gotta flat out nix that high-minded concept right now, as much as I’d like to keep playin’ this little game.  I do like your moxie, though, kid.”

“Listen, I know you know what I do here, but it ain’t like that tonight.”  B explained.

Jake’s eyebrow rose slightly and he let out a small chuckle, “Jive from a good ole goodtime girl…”

By this time, Isaac had snaked his way through congratulatory fans and had arrived at Jake’s table.

Jake looked up to Isaac and then leaned over to whisper to B, “If you ain’t goofin’, be in the Bouncin’ Betty outside in five minutes.”

B blushed, pushed her chair away from the table and stood.  She completely ignored Isaac and made a line for the door.

 

B felt the blood rush to her cheeks as she began the walk across the Silver Star Lounge to the exit.  Her heart pounded in her chest.  It had been so long since she had felt the way she did at that very moment.  It made her wonder if her heart would explode.  She slithered through the crowd toward the door.  Of course, she’d have to square things with the boss in the morning, but she knew it wouldn’t be too much of a headache.  Her chassis made the club money, a lot of money, so she could flake for a night and be alright.

Once outside, on the street, in the muggy night air, she spotted the Cabriolet and slipped in to wait.  Her heart still hadn’t calmed.  She tasted copper in her mouth – adrenaline.  The sweat on her hands made her palms slick.  She rubbed her fingers into her palms, trying to remember the last time she had felt like this because of a man.  She knew she was acting like a dumb cluck, which never happened – anymore.

 

*

 

Detective Travis flashed his badge to the superintendent to get him into the victim’s apartment.  The smarmy super felt the need to accompany the detective, in the elevator, on the ride to the fourth floor.  Travis had no intention of letting the stale-sweat reeking man into the apartment, but he could bust him with some questions on the ride.  The man smelled so bad, Travis had to breathe through his mouth to keep from retching.  The confined space of the small elevator made matters that much worse.

Travis choked back the need to gag before speaking to the man, “What can you tell me about the occupant?”

The man snorted before answering, “Not much, quiet sort of egg.  Kept to hisself, as most do here.  Course, he never said ‘boo’ to me, big livers here don’t notice me until somethin’ busts and needs fixin’.  Far as I know, he paid the landlord on time and never was no trouble…course, you’d have to ask the landlord ‘bout that.”

“What can you tell me about his habits?”  Travis asked next.

“Habits?”

Travis couldn’t get to the fourth floor fast enough and was quickly growing irritated, “You know, his comings and goings.  Any visitors…stuff like that.”

“Don’t know ‘bout his habits from nothin’.  He did have one visitor, regular-like…real Sheba, that one is.”

The elevator finally reached its destination.  The opening door allowed a draft of fresh air to waft over Travis, bringing much needed relief.  He stepped off into the brightly lit corridor and turned to the super, who was unprepared for the detective to stop and nearly bumped into him.

Travis put up a hand to the fat man, “Thanks for the skinny.  I can take it from here.  I’ll let you know when I’m through.”

“I can go with you, jus’ in case you got more questions for me.”  The super offered.

Travis, still annoyed with the stench on the ride up, cut short the niceties, “Beat it.”

A hurt look spread across the fat face of the super who huffed, pushed the button to return him to the ground floor, and pulled the gate closed.  Travis, relieved to be free of the repugnant man, headed toward the dead man’s rooms.  The knowledge of a regular woman visitor to the apartment was a much welcome lead.  Dolls could always be counted on to get dumb clucks into serious trouble, especially one way out of his league.

He drew his forty-five revolver from its holster and pocketed it, keeping his finger on the trigger…no use taking any chances.  He slid the key into the lock and turned it, hearing the bolt pull back.  He prepared himself for the worst.  He expected the place had been tossed by someone, but he hoped for the best.  He turned the knob slowly until he felt the door give slightly.  He pushed the door open and listened intently for any sound, before entering.  The feel of the heavy forty-five nestled in his coat pocket brought the detective comfort.

He walked into the apartment, and was shocked by what he found.  The main room of the place was completely empty.  Not so much as a scrap of paper, or wall nail where a picture may have once hung.  It was the last thing he had expected.  He checked the kitchenette with the same results.  The bedroom yielded more of the same.  Finally, came the washroom and on the counter, near the sink was his only clue: a leather-bound book.  It was something, at least.  It was something, someone wanted him to find.  The leather was supple to the touch.  The book was tied closed with a red silk ribbon, which loosened when he put a little pressure on the drawstring.  He picked up the book, opening to its first page.  It was a handwritten journal of some sort; this could help the case immensely, if it turned out to be Burris’ diary.

Travis, however, could make heads nor tails of the scribbling in the book.  It was nonsensical to his eyes.  He imagined it was written in some foreign language, or some sort of code, which he couldn’t decipher.  He pocketed the small book, took one more quick survey of the rooms, and made for the door.  He would spend the next few hours questioning neighbors and the staff of the building, much to the super’s chagrin.  The journal would have to wait until later, when he could have time to study the entries.  He also had some more questions for that detestable man, the super.  There was no way for the apartment to be emptied of all its furniture without that man knowing something.

 

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